The Magnificent Obsession Of Michael Reeves as titles go is somewhat misleading. A far better title would have been The Magnificent Obsession Of Dima Ballin.

Perhaps better known as the founder and publisher of Diabolique Magazine and the co-founder of the Boston Underground Film Festival than as a filmmaker, Dima Ballin has constructed a documentary that is a true labour of love – directing, producing and editing this exhaustively researched but ultimately rather flimsy hymn to the great, lost light of British Horror, director Michael Reeves. 

“A movie brat before there was such a thing,” Michael Reeves was an English public school boy with dreams of Hollywood who briefly burned very brightly before burning out, a combination of depression, alcohol and barbiturate abuse leading to his accidental overdose and death at the age of only 25, leaving behind just three films; campy, cheapo Euro-Horror The She Beast, the psychedelic Swing Sixties psychodrama The Sorcerers and arguably the granddaddy of British Folk Horror, Witchfinder General – films which introduced a grittily realistic violent aesthetic to British Horror cinema at a time when the camp studio-bound panto of Hammer was the order of the day, as well as a sense of nihilism, of transgression, that reflected a world that seemed to be spiralling into chaos with rioting on the streets of Paris and American soldiers in the killing fields of Vietnam.

There’s an apocryphal story that during the shooting of Witchfinder General, Reeves who was far from pleased by the casting of horror legend Vincent Price in the title role, repeatedly criticised his star’s campy scenery-chewing style of acting, urging him to underplay, to rein in his over-acting, causing Price to explode: “Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?” Reeves replied: “I’ve made three good ones.” It’s a great comeback but while Witchfinder General is a genuine classic and The Sorcerers deserves to be more widely appreciated than it is, despite Ballin’s best efforts nothing will ever convince me that The She Beast is worth watching again.

Marrying archive footage with in-depth analysis of his films and interviews with friends and collaborators like Tom Baker (not that one…) who co-wrote The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, school chum and muse Ian Ogilvy who starred in all of his films and former girlfriend Ingrid Cranfield who charts Reeves downward spiral – both were receiving counselling from the same psychotherapist who seems to have introduced them and encouraged their relationship almost as an experiment, The Magnificent Obsession Of Michael Reeves offers a definitive history of the man who was arguably British Horror’s James Dean and Orson Welles rolled into one, a tragic visionary who died too soon, leaving us just tantalising glimpses of what he would have given us.

Perhaps the last word on Reeves however should be that of playwright Alan Bennett who reviewed Witchfinder General for The Listener, calling the film: “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen. It was a degrading experience by which I mean it made me feel dirty.” That’s not a bad epitaph, is it?

Arrow Video Frightfest Review: The Magnificent Obsession Of Michael Reeves
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